Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Report: ‘Nothin’ To Lose: The Making of KISS 1972-1975′

October is Metal Month at Throughout the month, we’ll have artist interviews as well as mini-documentaries about metal, metal fans and the birthplace of metal. And book reports: reading is fundamental, even for headbangers, and we’ll have reviews of some of the best recent metal biographies and retrospectives. Horns up!

(Disclaimer: Yes, we know that KISS isn’t heavy metal, strictly speaking. But they have had a profound influence on the genre, and deserve inclusion in our Metal Month programming.)

Gene Simmons will be the first one to tell you that KISS is as much of a brand as they are a band; that’s been the way it’s been since the band put their makeup back on in 1996, and re-ignited their massive marketing machine. In the years since, they’ve partnered with everyone from Family Guy to NASCAR to Hello Kitty to sell merchandise. Their empire extends from “KISS Kondoms” to KISS Caskets. Simmons is a near ubiquitous media personality, always promoting something or other, continuously reminding anyone with a microphone that KISS has more gold records than either the Beatles or the Beach Boys, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is bulls*** and “rock credibility” is an inherently useless concept.

Nothin’ To Lose takes you back to a time before KISS was a cultural institution, before anyone cared what Gene (and his partner-in-crime for decades, Paul Stanley) had to say, and when they were still figuring out their direction. Most of all, it allows things to go a bit off-brand: not everyone interviewed for the book has great things to say about the band. To their credit, Simmons and Stanley (credited as co-authors with Ken Sharp, who likely did most of the heavy lifting) allowed people around the band to have their say. Including New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain: “Compared to KISS, we were a lot more dangerous. Every idea they ever f*****’ got was from the Dolls.”

The interviewees in the book include everyone from the band members, managers and road crew, to acts they toured with (including Bob Seger, the members of Rush and Blue Oyster Cult) and early fans (including people who were at their earliest club shows, and even the kids seen holding up a homemade KISS banner on the back cover of Alive). Here are some choice moments from the book:

The band was originally a trio. But guitarist Paul Stanley decided “I didn’t want to be a lead guitar player. There was too much responsibility in that and it would limit some of the other things I wanted to do in terms of performing.”

Punk rock icon Joey Ramone of the Ramones was at their first gig ever. “At the time, I think they were the loudest band I ever heard. I liked a lot of their stuff. They were fun and had great songs.” Years later – in 2003 – KISS would cover the Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio?”

Simmons’ early ideas for band names included “F***.” “The name of the first record could be ‘You,’ the name of the second could be ‘It.’ You’d have people at your shows screaming ‘F***, f***, f***!’ It’s the ultimate band name.” Sure, but it may have cost them that Hello Kitty deal.

Band that influenced KISS: Slade. Simmons says “The philosophy of their song ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’ influenced the writing of ‘Rock And Roll All Nite’; the part, ‘You drive us wild, we’ll drive you crazy’ is the same.” Also, Slade released a live album, Slade Alive! before KISS used the same title for their breakthrough album.

Band influenced by KISS: Rush. The Canadian power trio opened for KISS (and they note that they were treated extremely well by them) in 1974 and 1975. Alex Lifeson recalls: “What they did for their audience, the amount of preparation and effort that they put into their shows, was impressive. They always gave 1000% for every show. We respected them for that and we learned a lot from that, too.”

Even though the mainstream rock press has never treated the band well, they always understood the power they wielded in interviews: Stanley says, “I saw what you give (the press in interviews) as crucial, plus I knew how to ruffle feathers.” Simmons, who is in performance mode when being interviewed as surely as he is when he’s on stage adds, “If you’ve got something to say, and a way to say it that’s seductive, then people will naturally come to you. And if you’re fearless about how you present yourself, you’ll get attention. But you better be careful what you wish for, you have to have the goods to back it up.”

The book ends with the success of Alive!, their fourth release, their first live album and the record that saved their career, as well as their record label, Casablanca Records. And just as Alive! has spawned four sequels, you can bet that there’s going to be more oral histories of the band in the years to come; it will certainly be interesting if Simmons and Stanley allow Ace Frehley and Peter Criss to have their say in the books. But for now, this book is a fascinating look at just how hard these guys had to work to become, at least for a time, “the hottest band in the world.”